“Human once again”: documentaries spring eternal at Mexico’s Ambulante 2015

Ten years into its mission to bring audiences their own images on screen, Mexico’s touring Ambulante festival has inspired offshoots from Colombia to California. Amidst the country’s current turbulence, has it tapped a new mood of hope?

Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

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Hotel de Paso (2015), a verité gem set in a Mexicali flophouse, watched at its Ambulante world premiere by many with their own experience of trying to cross the border

Hotel de Paso (2015), a verité gem set in a Mexicali flophouse, watched at its Ambulante world premiere by many with their own experience of trying to cross the border

Last autumn in Mexico, in the Pacific coast state of Guerrero, 43 students from a rural teachers college went missing. Something in the country changed.

The story of what befell the young men from Ayotzinapa Normal School on 26 September, and the manner of their killing – they’d been turned over to local drug gangsters, to be ‘disappeared’, by a small-town mayor’s corrupted wife – were in many ways sadly unremarkable. Since Mexico’s ex-president Felipe Calderón launched the country’s simmering ‘narco-war’ in 2006, his state’s effort to ‘militarise’ the fight against its cartels has succeeded only in pulling more Mexicans into their violence: some 70,000 have been killed; a further 27,000 have been made desaparecidos. Few policemen or officials, in poor states like Guerrero and northern cartel-strongholds like Sinaloa, aren’t imbricated within the their lucrative trade in cocaine and crystal meth and its attendant violence. Grisly stories about mass graves and mass killings – especially of poor Central American migrants heading north with the drugs, whom gangsters like the infamous Zetas seem to like killing for sport – have grown commonplace.

But these hopeful young teachers struck a chord. Humble Mexicans rather than nameless migrants, they’d been working on the night they vanished to raise funds to travel to Mexico City for a demonstration. They’d been planning, hauntingly, to help commemorate a historic massacre of student activists back in 1968, protesting their own leaders’ repression and lies.

Mothers demand the truth about their disappeared in Alicia Calderón’s Retratos de una búsqueda (Portraits of a Search)

Mothers demand the truth about their disappeared in Alicia Calderón’s Retratos de una búsqueda (Portraits of a Search)

Ayotzinapa’s ‘disappeared’ didn’t make it to that rally. But for weeks afterwards, tens of thousands of other students, and citizens, crowded Mexico City’s grand boulevards and its great central square, the Zócalo, to demand justice for ‘los 43’. With their rage compounded by a blithe new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, who shared not merely a party but strong ties with Guerrero’s powers-that-be, the protestors’ numbers only grew when Peña Nieto’s attorney general announced the finding, in a country dump, of the charred remains of what he said, with dubious conviction, belonged to the 43. They swarmed the Zocalo and the capital’s main avenue, Reforma, shouting “We’re all Ayotzinapa!” or carrying signs bearing a slogan – “#Yamecansé” (Roughly: I’ve had it) – borrowed from their sighing leaders’ disdain for their queries.

By the time I reached Mexico City for the launch of the Ambulante film festival, in early February, the largest protests had faded. But the energies and dialogue they’d unleashed – suspicions were growing that the army itself had been involved in Ayotzinapa – lingered along the grassy median of Reforma, where portraits of the 43 hung by a protestors’ camp. And they echoed off a high cement wall, near my hotel, painted with a fresh mural whose letters, citing Ayotzinapa’s culprit, were 30 feet high. FUE EL ESTADO, they said. It was the state.

It felt an auspicious time, all in all, to be arriving for a festival occurring in public spaces and aiming to help its public, through film, engage hard realities, dovetailing nicely with a civic movement some here had dubbed, with a hat-tip to Roberto Bolaño, their “Infrarealist Revolution”.

An Ambulante screening in Guerrero

An Ambulante screening in Guerrero

Ambulante was launched in 2006 as a “gira de documantales” – a tour of documentaries – by Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal, those now-thirtysomething posterboys of the New Mexican Cinema, along with their friends Pablo Cruz and Elena Fortes. It began in response to what its founders – who’d just gotten involved in producing nonfiction films – recognised as a problem familiar to anyone living in a country whose TV stations only buy melodramas and whose every cinema feels perpetually filled with Fast and Furious 7: there was little or no opportunity for most Mexicans, outside the capital and a few choice college towns, to see documentaries at all.

Ambulante partnered, that first year, with a national cinema chain to bring a selection of the year’s finest local and international docs to audiences across the country. And then its ambit grew. Under the dynamic directorship of Fortes – who at 34 has now been running Ambulante for a decade – the festival took its mission of “looking for new venues, diversifying the spaces, extending the circuit,” as Fortes now describes it, to its natural end.

A screening in Chiapas

A screening in Chiapas

Focusing on cities and sites most marginal to Mexico’s traditional seats of power, Ambulante now comprises a three-month sprint across the country’s full geographic and social breadth. With its core focus on context, and forging fresh ‘encounters’ between audiences and films and the places they’re shown, Ambulante now brings its programme to public squares and community centres from the northern border down to Chiapas’s jungly hills. Its driven staff and volunteers have lugged their projectors to heavily indigenous states like Oaxaca and Michoacán; to the border-wall in Tijuana (where they projected the border doc Una Frontera, Todas las Fronteras onto the very wall where it was shot); and a small town in the Monterrey desert near the one where El Alcalde (The Mayor), a brave 2012 portrait of village corruption, was set.

“One reason we haven’t stopped screening in the most violent states,” Fortes told me, “is that we think it’s important to fill these public spaces not with violence, but with film.” At a screening of El Alcalde in one such town’s square, she recalled, the mayor’s security chief stood up, joined by a grim-looking man with known ties to both the Zetas and his boss, and asked the crowd to applaud for the heroes – corrupted capos and killers like himself – on screen. They did.

A screening in Zacatecas

A screening in Zacatecas

Scenes and settings like these, one quickly gleans from Ambulante’s impassioned team, are the ‘encounters’ that most turn them on. But this year like every year, the festival was kicking off, before moving on to the provinces, in the country’s sprawling Distrito Federal. With its antique centre’s vibrant streets and its thriving cultural life, ‘DF’ has remained thankfully free, for the most part, from the worst of the narco-violence; it’s a fabulous place to visit at any time. But as a vast megacity of 25 million, beset with all the vertiginous class divides and social ills of the still-developing world, Mexico City is lacking in interesting contexts, or charged public spaces, wherein to stage cinematic events like Ambulante’s opening night: a free outdoor screening, in a plaza recently convulsed with protests, of Victor Kossakovsky’s Demonstration – a “team documentary” shot in Barcelona, by 30 of the Russian master’s Catalan students, as their city was shaken by its own anti-government unrest in 2012.

A screening of Andres Duprat’s Living Stars (2014) in Michoacan

A screening of Andres Duprat’s Living Stars (2014) in Michoacan

Among the other unique ‘cinematic contexts’, during those first days, were a prison, parks and plazas throughout the city, and a lake in Chapultepec Park, where the story of Searching for Sugarman’s Chicano singer-star Rodriguez found chilly resonance among several hundred bundled-up Chilangos, bobbing in paddleboats on the lake.

Other, newer international picks making Mexican bows here included Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour – whose screening was followed by a typically offbeat Q&A, via Google Hangout from London’s Ecuador Embassy, with Julian Assange (who sat before a backdrop touting support for “los forty-three”); and The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer’s wrenching companion piece to the film with which it needs to be watched, The Act of Killing, and with which it was programmed here in a belly-punching double-bill. Both parts of Oppenheimer’s exceptional diptych are set in Indonesia, but it wasn’t hard to grasp the keen resonance they’d find in those many places here where people also know what it’s like to live alongside crooks responsible both for killing their kin and policing their silence.

Hotel de Paso (2015)

Hotel de Paso (2015)

Films in the film’s Pulsos section, drawn from the best new work from Mexico and its region, bore a local resonance more immediately felt. In a cultural centre just off the Zocalo, I caught the world premiere of Hotel de Paso, a careful verité gem from the northern border-town of Mexicali, with an audience including not a few people, as came clear in a post-screening discussion, who’d lived the story of emigrants crossing themselves. First-time director Paulina Sanchez was raised and lives in Mexicali, and it shows: far be it for a visiting outsider to win the trust and capture the lives with such sensitive grace of those recent deportees and hopeful migrants, caught between the cops and gangsters, who bunk in her film’s eponymous flophouse by the border, for a week or a year, while waiting to cross.

Retratos de una búsqueda (Portraits of a Search, 2014)

Retratos de una búsqueda (Portraits of a Search, 2014)

Alicia Calderón’s Retratos de una búsqueda (Portraits of a Search), lent new urgency by current headlines, recounted three mothers’ quest to find out, whatever the cost, what’s befallen their disappeared kin.

An unwitting companion-piece, El Cuarto de Huesos (The Room of Bones), examined the noble vocation and quotidian lives of forensic anthropologists at the Office of Legal Medicine in El Salvador – a country likewise ravaged by narco-violence, whose doctor-heroes help salve its own grieving moms’ wounds by putting together the bones they find in unmarked graves, often scarred with bullet holes and chop wounds, and matching them with photos of the missing hung by their office. The film’s most damning resonance, here, was voiced by a woman in the crowd. “At least in El Salvador,” she said, “the forensics don’t get death threats.”

El Cuarto de Huesos (The Room of Bones, 2014)

El Cuarto de Huesos (The Room of Bones, 2014)

Films by graduates of Ambulante Beyond, a programme devoted to “democratising not just film exhibition, but production” which runs year-long filmmaking workshops for young filmmakers from Mexico’s poorest states, also showed around the city; while on the other end of the pedagogic spectrum a sharply curated programme of experimental work called Injerto (graft) featured shorts-programmes exploring themes like “contours of the invisible”.

One event I attended joined the oblique work of Ximena Cuevas, DF’s leading video vanguardist, with an exemplary film essay by the Los Angeles-based Rebecca Baron. Baron’s Detour de Force, a layered look at the 1960s TV huckster and ‘thoughtographer’ Ted Serios – an alcoholic Chicago bellhop who claimed that he could, by staring hard enough into a camera, photograph his thoughts – doubled as an incisive meditation on the nature of archives, cinema and the historical truths they can both occlude and convey.

Propaganda (2014)

Propaganda (2014)

Similar concerns, joined to topical themes, informed the quietly potent Chilean import Propaganda. Another ‘team documentary’, helmed by Christopher Murray and comprised of footage shot by a dozen of his comrades in Chile’s MAFI collective – an outfit devoted to building a “filmic map” of their country – Murray’s film charted its recent presidential campaign by seizing its moments in sidelong fashion: vapid debates and canned rallies are shot from off to the side or backstage; vain candidates preen and buoyant campaign-signs (“Dignified Pensions!”) are hung over where the destitute, squatting by their shanties, fry eggs; youthful demonstrators, confronting riot cops, point out the echoes of the dictator Pinochet’s reign in their current tactics. Each scene is framed in an unbroken shot of one-to-two minutes in length; the result is a rhythmic collage of verité images, artfully paced, of a polity at once deeply engaged in politics and deeply alienated from its institutional forms.

On my penultimate day in Mexico City, another Latin American capital replete with such feelings, I found myself in a gritty park peopled by glue-sniffing addicts for a workshop on graffiti-painting and “reclaiming urban space”. Attended by aspiring artists and huffing street kids alike who joined in painting a mural, the workshop was followed by an al fresco screening of Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop.

That night, I joined a huge troupe of bicyclists, 1,500-strong and in fine Infrarealista mood, which took over Reforma during rush hour to wind through the city, and then the dusky trees of Chapultapec Park, toward an outdoor screening of Gary Hustwit’s exegetical ode to city planning, Urbanized.

A screening in Jalisco

A screening in Jalisco

By my last night in town, I’d certainly gleaned why Ambulante – which has spawned satellite festivals in Colombia, El Salvador and California – has become such a model for cineaste-activists impelled to think about what a film festival tied less to red carpets and commerce than to civic engagement can do. But it was the film I attended that night, at DF’s National Cineteca, which perhaps best signalled the impacts this year’s tour – currently winding through the country en route to a finale in Oaxaca in early May – can have throughout Mexico.

“Every year there seems to be one film with which audiences connect, in context, in an extra strong way,” festival photographer Karloz Byrnison had told me, at the graffiti workshop downtown, citing titles like El Alcalde, from a couple of years back, and last year’s similarly penetrative look at hard social truths, Narcocultura. It seemed clear that that film, this year, was Llévate Mis Amores (All of Me), which offered a fresh look at Mexico’s migration crisis from a new angle, and had playing to packed houses all week.

Llévate Mis Amores (All of Me, 2015)

Llévate Mis Amores (All of Me, 2015)

I arrived early to the centre of Mexico’s film school, a gigantic flying-saucer-like complex, to get a seat. Opened in 2010, the Cinetaca’s dozen state-of-the art screening rooms – not to mention the superb bootleg-DVD street market outside – beg comparison with any film institution or film school anywhere. This is where Ambulante, for this year’s tenth anniversary, had also hosted an Agnès Varda retrospective featuring both now-canonised works and too-rarely-seen short docs, like her superb 1967 California diptych Uncle Yanco and Black Panthers, which screened here in gorgeous 35mm prints flown in from France. Tonight, though, the film which people were now queuing to see, as they had for extra screenings all weekend, came from nearer by.

Arturo Gonzalez Villaseñor’s film was a Mexican production, urgent and felt, on a subject of keen current import – the many thousands of Central American and Mexican migrants continually heading north through the country on the brutally dangerous freight train known as la bestia (the Beast). The story of the Beast and its riders, rich in myth and violence, is far from a remote or rural issue here: many of the beggars one passes in DF’s streets, lying on the pavement with missing legs or feet, are maimed victims of falls from the train.

Llévate Mis Amores (All of Me, 2015)

Llévate Mis Amores (All of Me, 2015)

If the capital’s concrete, or the narcos’ graves, are one place where migration odysseys end, many of those migrants who do succeed in making it to the US border and beyond owe much to the subject of Gonzalez Villaseñor’s film: a group of impoverished women, in a remote Oaxaca town through which the Beast passes, who wake each day to prepare bags of home-cooked food and water for exhausted migrants, shouting “Gracias!” as they hurtle past, whom las patronas don’t know and will never see again. Many of these women, as we learn from Gonzalez Villaseñor’s empathic portrayal of their lives, have lost their own mates or sons, wearied of violent poverty, to the trek north.

And at its end, no one in the hall didn’t stand to applaud those of las patronas who’d come up from Oaxaca to attend – and whose story seemed to offer key clues as to how, in a land ripped by violence but also buoyed by hope-filled protests, “we can become human once again.”

 

Further reading

Elena Fortes’s top ten documentaries (2014)

Access the digital edition

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